Joho’s History of Alphabetization

For my book, I’ve been looking into the history of alphabetization. The major work in the field seems to be Lloyd W. Daly’s Contributions to a History of Alphabetization in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, written in 1967. It’s a short work of intense scholarship bring a huge breadth of knowledge to bear on a tiny sliver of a topic…like using the Hubble telescope to help you pull out a splinter. Lots of fun.

Some stray facts:

Daly mentions that a 13th century book, Registrum librorum Angliae, is

a list of authors, not in alphabetic order, and of their works with a numeral key to indicate where in a list of 183 monasteries each work might be found. This early union catalogue was apparently compiled as an aid to wandering Franciscan preachers who might be looking for material for sermons anywhere between St. Andrews’ and Sarum. (p. 77)

The first catalog of a distributed library system. Cool!

For my purposes, I’m struck by scattered examples Daly gives of early alphabetical lists that leave blanks for later entries. The earliest alphabetized list he found dates to the 3rd century BCE on the Greek isle of Cos where 150 names are inscribed in stone. The names are broken into three lists, and each is alphabetized. One of them leaves blanks, presumably for names to be filled in later. (p. 44-6). He also refers to papyrus rolls from the 1st Century BCE in Egypt that kept track of the various tax payments individuals made. Since the entries were updated throughout the year, the ledgers had to leave blank space for each person. At the end of the year, some of the more active individuals’ spaces would be crowded with entries, and other individuals would have lots of white space. (p. 44-6). That’s the limitation that space and time impose when you are stuck organizing your information in the physical world.

The great French encyclopedia of the 17th Century hit exactly the same limit. Enlightening the World, by Philipp Blom, points out that the editors had to decide ahead of time what all the entries and cross-references would be since they were creating the Encyclopedia as a series of volumes, published over time, in alphabetical order. Imagine if Jimmy Wales had had to specify all topics and links in order to get Wikipedia built? Hah!

This interesting information about the history of Alphabetization was taken from Joho The Blog: – – under the Creative Commons license –

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